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Books of the Dead : Unusual Library in Burbank Devoted to the Study of Death

July 02, 1995|DAVID E. BRADY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — Its trappings are the same as virtually any other reading room--rows of musty, well-worn books, soft lighting, comfortable chairs, faint music wafting through the air.

But a quick glance at the nearly 200 titles resting on the shelves of this library reveals a most unusual collection--"The Disposal of the Dead," "Why Did Grandpa Die?" "Good Grief" and "Living With Dying."

Welcome to the Learning Resource Center of Valley Funeral Home, a rare and seldom-seen archive where the merely curious and the deadly serious can explore such topics as death, grief, suicide, euthanasia, miscarriage and explaining death to children through books, brochures, films and videotapes.

Paul Hultquist, the center's director, who has spent most of his life in the business of death, says it is a subject regrettably few people are schooled in.

"I think it's very important, but it's a very difficult thing to admit," said Hultquist, who is 80. "People live like they're immortal and they just don't want to be totally conversant with [death]. They think it won't happen to them until it does."

Common questions from clients about death prompted the mortuary to open the library in 1978, said executive secretary Gail Walkey.

"We had so many inquiries about death and dying that we thought, 'Gee, wouldn't it be a good idea?' " she said.

Hultquist, a former funeral director resembling Jack Perkins, the genteel host of cable TV's "Biography" series, says that most often people want reassurance their feelings of grief, anger and remorse are not unusual. Because his late wife suffered from anxiety so powerful she eventually became housebound by her phobias, quelling fear became a topic with which Hultquist was intimately familiar.

In addition to helping people understand often painful, difficult subjects, libraries such as his also serve as "good public relations" for the funeral industry, Hultquist said.

"I know that they're really committed to having as full a collection as possible," said Doug Manning, the Texas-based author of "Don't Take My Grief Away from Me" and "Comforting Those Who Grieve," as well as an occasional speaker at the center. "That was one of the first collections like that in the country."

As at a traditional library, visitors are allowed to check out books for two weeks, although borrowers aren't fined if the books are returned late, Walkey said.

At its busiest, the center receives only a few visitors a week, almost all students or health care workers who deal with the terminally ill, Hultquist said. Perhaps not surprisingly the library never really caught on with the general public. Similarly, Hultquist said that he used to speak frequently to children about death but that interest among local schools has waned.

"I guess teachers probably have enough problems on their hands," he said.

To Hultquist, much of the reluctance to learn about death stems from the country's relatively comfortable standard of living, a standard that does not exist in many countries where violence and unexpected death are more commonplace.

"In America, we're pretty well-shielded" from death, he said. "People pretty much die in institutions; they're in hospitals; they're away from home."

Manning agrees.

"We don't do death well," he said. "I think part of it is when you live in an affluent society where life is pretty good, you darn sure don't want to talk about dying. It's always been our way to just avoid it."

O. Duane Weeks, a Washington state funeral director for 36 years, says that, although he is encouraged by the existence of resource centers such as the Valley Funeral Home's, he believes that few people will take advantage of them before death touches their lives. Weeks has a doctorate in sociology with a specialty in death education.

Of death research, he said, "When you need it, it's too late," explaining that people suffering intense grief after the death of a loved one are unlikely to pick up a book to help them understand their pain. "You need to know it ahead of time."

Some say that an understanding of the subject can help erase the common superstition that death is somehow contagious.

"To reach out and be familiar with death and dying is such a wonderful education," said Jan Whitney, who used Valley's library several years ago while developing a bereavement curriculum for the Hospice in the Home program of the Verdugo Hills Visiting Nurses Assn. "It takes the fear away."

As Weeks explains, the most important aspect of death education is letting people know that they are not alone.

"I think it's helpful to know that 'the way I feel' is very normal," he said. "There are a lot of different feelings people have, and they're all normal."

Although most people are intellectually aware they will die someday, Weeks said they often behave emotionally as if they are immune.

"We're still seeing death as something that happens to someone else," he said.

Hultquist, who has made a career of helping others confront death, believes it is the stigma attached to the subject that prevents death education from gaining greater acceptance.

"Psychologically, there's a tremendous superstition about it," he said.

When he lost his wife of 56 years a few months ago, Hultquist said, it was not the books that brought him the greatest peace but the sight of her body.

"To see her at peace and no longer frightened, that aspect of the funeral meant the most to me," he said.

And while he still spends three days a week overseeing a library devoted wholly to death, he admits that making it an inviting topic of study is no easy task.

"No wonder people don't get excited about these books," he said. "They're not very exciting."

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